The Importance of Curiosity and Moving Beyond Informed Opinions

For the next week, the part of Ben will be played by Rob Rhyne. Opinions are his own, and do not represent his employer. You can read more on Twitter or his site.

Hiring is a hot topic, and a large problem area in the technology space. When I was running MartianCraft, we were always on the search for great talent who would excel in (and hopefully expand) our culture. That’s how I came to know Ben Brooks personally—I interviewed him for a job. Hindsight proves it was a great decision to hire Ben, but I’m not writing here to talk about how cool I am1.

Many have asked me how I evaluated candidates for MartianCraft. You might assume that technical skill was a key indicator, but we found it wasn’t a discriminate enough indicator. There are a lot of smart, technically capable people in our industry.

Problem is, there aren’t as many thinkers.

Consider this article on Quartz, A leading Silicon Valley engineer explains why every tech worker needs a humanities education, which Ben shared a few weeks ago. As I started to read it, I felt like someone had finally nailed what we valued most in our MartianCraft staff.

Tracy Chou starts by quoting David Foster Wallace’s oft-cited commencement address from 2006:

The most important education we can receive, Wallace goes on to explain, “isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about.” He talks about finding appreciation for the richness of humanity and society. But it is the core concept of meta-cognition, of examining and editing what it is that we choose to contemplate, that has fixated me as someone who works in the tech industry.

Put another way, it is important to be curious, but it is equally important what you do with that curiosity. This is the mark of a motivated thinker.

What advice would I give to hopeful MartianCraft staff? At a glance, it seems obvious: give a shit, and do something about it. But such a simple view can be dangerous. One must do more than simply ponder, and engage.

Consider Chou’s closing:

… it is never too late to be curious. Each of us can choose to learn, to read, to talk to people, to travel, and to engage intellectually and ethically. I hope that we all do so—so that we can come to acknowledge the full complexity and wonder of the world we live in, and be thoughtful in designing the future of it.

Yikes! First, there is no equivalence between learning, and reading, traveling, and talking to people. The latter are chosen activities, but learning is the result of combining those activities with observation, and self-reflection. Second, it takes much more than appreciation of the world we live in, to be truly thoughtful in designing for its future.

If you acknowledge the complexity of the world today, you might thoughtfully design something for today. But if you learn how the world’s evolved to be so complex, you will design something thoughtful for tomorrow.

Our first step towards this kind of understanding is going beyond just being informed.

Toward Enlightenment.

Chou is right—the tech industry resembles a mono-culture—but also wrong because of how little she offers her readers to do something about it. Developers ask precious few questions about the impact of what they’re building. That is the problem I believe Chou is attacking. But she’s set the bar too low—we need, as an industry, to ask the right questions.

Developers should not suddenly debate their products philosophically before they understand what questions to ask. Our questions, just as our opinions, should be informed, but also insightful.

Mortimer J. Adler, in the opening of How to Read a Book:

To be informed is to know simply that something is the case. To be enlightened is to know, in addition, what it is all about: why it is the case, what its connections are with other facts, in what respects it is the same, in what respects it is different…

It is not enough to be aware. One must strive towards understanding. Simple acknowledgement of a problem is little more than remembering that it exists. Can you explain the problem? Who does it affect? Why does it affects them?

This type of understanding eludes so many because modern mass communication doesn’t require thinking. If you know something because you heard it on a podcast, or saw it on television, this is a different kind of knowledge compared to something you read in a book or newspaper.

When learning something new, the broadcaster, performer, or writer has superior understanding of the subject matter. Adler refers to this as an “inequality in understanding”, and how a listener, viewer, or reader overcomes this inequality differs from medium to medium. A podcast or television broadcast requires less cognition compared to reading or unaided observation because it requires less thinking to comprehend them.

Broadcast mediums are also easier to persuade you of their opinion because they can engage multiple senses. They can bombard you with a volume of facts that can reduce your ability to reason about such events. But as a reader, you control your own pace.

Active reading—i.e., the act of reading for the purpose understanding—is the best way to engage your brain, when forming your own opinions. I’m not arguing you should avoid broadcast mediums entirely, but they should not be your exclusive means to obtain and learn new information.

The road towards enlightenment follows a path of unaided discovery, and active reading is the best tool at our disposal for this type of learning.

Beware of Social Media.

Adler feared the detrimental effects of television and radio in the 1970s, writing that a host of ideas, and events could be packaged together such that one could easily make up their mind on any range of complex subjects.

He warned:

…the packaging is often done so effectively that the viewer, listener, or reader does not make up his own mind at all. Instead, he inserts a packaged opinion into his mind, somewhat like inserting a cassette into a cassette player.

Consider the capability of Facebook and Twitter to package any person’s opinions into bite-sized, easily consumable chunks of text, and you can imagine Adler would make a similar warning about social media.

The 20th century problem of mainstream private broadcasting has been compounded in the 21st century by the pervasive ease of mass broadcasting—available to anyone with a mobile phone or personal computer.

Going Further.

I’ve only briefly touched on the problems we face in broadening our horizon as an industry. It is not enough to expose ourselves to the outside world, we must immerse in it. We must seek understanding and enlightenment through active reading, and avoid the trap of relying on packaged opinions—particularly from social media.

To truly enlighten yourself, you must first learn how to learn. That is what a humanities education provides, after all. You don’t have to go to university, but a good book or two is a nice start.

How to Read a Book can transform you into someone who reads for understanding, instead of merely reading for information. I recommend it to anyone who wants to better understand the world around them, and it will help you make better sense of the deluge of information presented in these modern times.

After you understand how to read, the next step is to expose yourself to as many varieties of opinions as available. Pretty soon you’ll have a better handle on which sources suit you best.

Until then, stay curious—and seek understanding, not just knowledge.


  1. I’m the coolest of the cool, if you must know. 

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Article Details

Published
by Rob Rhyne
7 minutes to read.


tl;dr

Everybody has an opinion about how the world is fucked, but few offer practical suggestions. Like how to actually get an education in the humanities…